by: Jon Reischel
The light hitting Detroit Tigers infielder who did what no one had ever done.
On the morning of June 21, 1970, the Detroit Tigers were getting ready to play a doubleheader against the Cleveland Indians. It didn’t cause much of a stir. The Tigers were on the edges of contention, one game above 500 at 31-30 and nine games behind the first place Baltimore Orioles, who would go on to win 108 regular season games and the World Series title. Cleveland sat in fifth place, three games under even and two back of the Tigers.
The Tigers had talent, just two seasons removed from the 1968 championship and two seasons before they would claim the American League East division flag in 1972. Stars and stalwarts like Al Kaline, Norm Cash, Willie Horton, Jim Northrup, Bill Freehan, Denny McLain, and the Mickeys (Lolich and Stanley), dotted the lineup card.
The Tigers shortstop that season was the unheralded César Gutiérrez. Detroit had acquired him the previous summer from the San Francisco Giants in exchange for journeyman pitcher Don McMahon. In 17 games in ’69, he batted .245 and played solid defense at short. The job was his going into the 1970 season. He got off to a great start, batting .385 in his first six games and sitting at .292 at the end of April.
May was not nearly as kind. Gutiérrez hit just .177 for the month and squeezed out just two extra base hits and a .226 slugging percentage. June was even worse. Prior to that doubleheader against the Indians, he was hitting just .150 in June and mired in a 9 for 68 nosedive (.132). On that fateful day in Cleveland Stadium on June 21, Tigers manager Mayo Smith sat Gutiérrez for the first game of the twinbill, hoping the rest might snap him out of the slump. The Tigers won that first game 7-2. And Smith penciled in Gutiérrez to bat second and play short in the nightcap.
No one could have ever imagined what would happen next.
- Gutiérrez singled in the first inning and scored the game’s first run.
- In the third, he singled again and scored on a Kaline home run. Two for two.
- He led off the fifth with a single off of Indians reliever Dennis Higgins and was stranded. Three for three, and the Tigers trailed 6-5.
- He led off again in the seventh and doubled to left field. He scored on a Northrup home run as the Tigers pulled to within 8-7. Four for four.
- In the eighth, Gutierrez came up with two outs and runners at the corners against new reliever Fred Lasher. He dumped a single into right field that scored Gates Brown and tied the game 8-8. Five for five.
- In the tenth, another new reliever – Dick Ellsworth – and another base hit. Six for six.
In the top of the 12th, Mickey Stanley homered to give the Tigers a 9-8 lead, and Gutiérrez followed him with a chance to make history. No one had ever gone 7-for-7. Another new pitcher, Phil Hennigan, toed the slab. It didn’t faze Gutiérrez in the slightest. He ripped a single to center field.
Seven for seven. And a Tigers extra-inning win to boot. His batting average jumped 31 points to .249 in a single day. And all of Coro, Venezuela rejoiced as the hometown hero had a game for the ages and wrote his name in the record book for all time.
It was the unlikeliest game for the unlikeliest of players and proof positive of pitcher Joaquin Andujar’s famous quote: “You can sum up the game of baseball in one word: ‘You never know.’”